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[infowar.de] IHT 03.10.02: Journalism And The Rumors Of War
International Herald Tribune October 3, 2002
Journalism And The Rumors Of War
By Simon Freeman
LONDON--In a noisy Italian restaurant here the veteran television
correspondent pushed aside his plate and arranged packets of brown and
white sugar on the table. "This is Baghdad," he said, pointing to the salt
shaker. "TV crews, reporters, photographers will move in from Kuwait,
Saudi, northern Iraq. Gulf War One made CNN. CNN has to beat Fox News. CNN
has to establish international news supremacy fast in Gulf War Two." He
slid the packets toward the salt and smiled.
The correspondent - who was speaking on the condition he not be identified
because his contract forbids him talking to the press without permission -
added: "This will be the biggest news-gathering operation in the history of
television. Money is no object. It will be a real-time war. Everything will
A second Gulf War will not be an easy conflict to cover, he said. The
distances are huge; no one knows where any Western attack would come from;
U.S. Special Forces detest publicity. Conventional forces, however, have
allowed journalists to accompany them. He said the coverage of war always
raised important issues - such as the manipulation of reporters by
governments and military. But his biggest problem would be his workload.
"I'll be doing five or six spots in an hour. When will I be able to get out
to do any reporting?"
The star correspondents want to be based in Baghdad. But he was worried by
this: "The Iraqis control you so tightly that there's no room for
enterprise reporting." If the war dragged on and American soldiers were
being killed, he said, the position of correspondents based in the Iraqi
capital would become untenable. "Corporate America and the American public
won't want us there. They'll say it's not right for American reporters to
be with the enemy." Everything, he said, depended on a fast, low-casualty
Gulf War Two.
Then there is the question of Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite station in
Qatar that has repeatedly scooped the Western media in Afghanistan. He
thought Al Jazeera would cover the war from the Iraqi perspective, which
would be interesting but not wholly welcome competition.
The correspondent takes no pleasure in the thought of people being killed.
But he is also a journalist, and war is an exciting, enjoyable and
AOL Time Warner's CNN and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News will determine how
Americans, and much of the world, view a war against Iraq. The terrestrial
networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, which once dominated the American airwaves,
will have to follow these rolling news stations.
In 1991, CNN was essentially transformed from a station known only to
business travelers fortunate enough to stay in hotels with satellite TV to
the world's dominant news station when Peter Arnett described the U.S.
Cruise missiles fizzing past his hotel in Baghdad. Fox, despite its motto
"Fair and Balanced," is brash and aggressively patriotic. Its reporting
style is epitomized by Geraldo Rivera, a talk-show host who reinvented
himself after the attacks of Sept. 11, when he was hired to become Fox's
"chief war correspondent" and set off to Afghanistan.
He made no attempt to be objective. It wasn't only that he looked like an
aging member of the Special Forces, with his walrus moustache, bandana and
flak jacket; he also told viewers that he carried a gun because he didn't
want to miss the opportunity to shoot Osama bin Laden. Do not worry, he
said, "one way or another we're gonna get him."
Many media commentators on major newspapers in the United States and
Britain were appalled and said that he was the antithesis of good
journalism, while others thought it said much about the impact of Sept. 11
on the American pysche that a lifelong liberal like Rivera should have
become so crudely gung-ho. His rivals in Afghanistan merely thought he was
a brave and resourceful professional. They said that Fox wanted its
reporters to participate and that that was what Rivera was doing.
Fox feels that Rivera's view, that American troops were heroes trying to
rid the world of a pestilence, was what viewers wanted. Recent American war
films - "Saving Private Ryan," for example, and "Black Hawk Down" - show
that war is about pain, suffering and moral ambiguities, no matter how
righteous the cause. And the satiric "Wag the Dog" follows the machinations
of a U.S. president who invents a war to boost his flagging popularity,
though no one apart from Iraq, its few allies and the anti-American extreme
left is suggesting that President George W. Bush is similarly unscrupulous.
What appears undeniable is that many Americans prefer Rivera-style
simplicities when war is real rather than recreated by Hollywood. The
debate about Rivera, and the consequent pressure on CNN to "dumb down," is
a 21st-century version of age-old arguments: What is truth in war? Should a
reporter take sides? Can governments and the military ever be trusted?
Phillip Knightley, an award-winning former Sunday Times journalist and
author of "The First Casualty," a study of war reporting, argues that
Vietnam, the first televised conflict, was a watershed because it showed
the power of the media to shape opinion at home, aided by new technology
and a naive military. The British learned the lesson of Vietnam, he says.
In 1982 they barred reporters from the Falklands because they knew the
reporters would file stories and take photographs that would upset the
public. Journalists in the Falklands who were too inquisitive found that
their dispatches, entrusted to Ministry of Defense minders for transmission
to London, were "delayed" or mislaid. Sympathetic reporters were given
The Americans adopted those tactics in Grenada in 1983 and in Panama in
1989. Knightley contends that journalists covering these conflicts found
themselves ensnared by a government that knew how to hide embarrassing
facts. The balance of power apparently tilted back to the media in the Gulf
War of 1990-1991 but Knightley says this was an illusion: The military gave
television what it wanted - dramatic shots of missiles and bombs that were
designed to demonstrate that this was a war in which only really bad people
were killed. But Knightley says that this was untrue. It emerged later that
the high-tech ordnance was often ineffective and that many innocent
civilians were killed.
Knightley says Gulf War Two will be the nadir. "The war correspondent as we
know him - as an objective, independent person trying to find out what is
going on - is finished. This is a new era in the relationship between
government and the military and the media. Do you think they will let CNN
show pictures of Iraqi kids being incinerated? They want to portray this as
a clean, surgical war."
Many journalists are concerned about the partisanship of Fox News. But many
also believe that Knightley is underestimating today's television reporters.
Nick Pollard, head of Sky news at BSkyB, a Murdoch station, says: "I don't
accept that television journalists are worker drones who are spoon-fed
propaganda. Our journalists are grown-up and independent. A red mist won't
descend on us just because there's a war."
Newspapers, increasingly marginalized by television in wars, will dispatch
as many reporters as they can afford to the Middle East, though Kim
Fletcher, media columnist for the Daily Telegraph, says wars do not boost
circulations. He says that, of course, TV is limited in what it can reveal
but adds that that has always been the case.
He says that humble hacks with notebooks and an appetite for the truth will
break the important stories that governments and militaries on both sides
try to hide: "That's what happened in Afghanistan. Rivera and the rest were
doing their bit for the cameras, but ordinary reporters were out there
finding out what was really going on."
Simon Freeman, a free-lance writer in London, was a foreign correspondent
for The Sunday Times, the Sunday Correspondent and the European.
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